On Participation

If It’s Broke, Why Don’t You Fix It?


“If only somebody around here would take care of that.” Sound familiar? How about “That’s broken, and I have the skills necessary to do something about it, and I’m going to take care of that.”? Probably less familiar. What about “I can see that’s broken, and I don’t quite know how to fix it, but I am going to try and take care of it.”? Even less.

In addition to the work I do as a graduate student at UNM and a student intern at Sandia, I also am involved with the GPSA, the student government for graduate and professional students at UNM. Doing so has made me realize the importance of participation, in any capacity, in getting things done and solving problems. Too often we see something which could be fixed and only complain about it. (Though identifying the best things to fix is a skill in and of itself.) Rare is the person who takes the time to figure out if there is someone in authority they could bring this problem to. Rarer still is the person who becomes that authority.

I think a big reason why people don’t go from identifying a problem to helping solve it is they think they lack the skills necessary to “make an impact”. On the whole, this is probably false, for at least two reasons:

First, they may have skills which are necessary to making that impact, but those skills are not what they think make an impact. For instance, not everyone gets to be the leader, going up on stage and giving speeches. There are many people behind the scenes coordinating and helping make sure things go smoothly. Those people help make an impact, but in a less splashy sort of way. Volunteers on grassroots campaigns make an impact, even if it involves stuffing envelopes or making telephone calls.

Second, most of the relevant skills can be developed. Seven months ago, I joined the Graduate Student Council, the legislative arm of our graduate student government. This body uses Robert’s Rules of Order in their proceedings, something I was not familiar with. Did I know exactly how to make a motion? Did I understand how to add items from an agenda? Not really. Did I learn how to do so? Yes. Did I mess up several times? Absolutely. However, because I took the time to learn and to develop my skills, I look forward to the start of the school year, when we will tackle some tough issues. Because now I am in a position to make a difference.

I think it’s worth observing there are roughly 80 million people in my age demographic. One day we will be the leaders of business and government. We will also be the supporters, making things happen behind the scenes. We will be the activists. If we hope to make the world a better place for ourselves and future generations, it is not sufficient to simply complain about how things “should” be done. We have to go out there and make those changes happen.

In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy asked us to consider what we can do for our country. That sentiment of active participation, not simply passive complaining, is still relevant today. This participation can take many forms, but at its core is a committment to the idea that nothing changes unless action is taken.